Wimbledon 2021: Djokovic pursues Channel Slam; Foes Try To Channel Focus

This image is a derivative of "I'm in the final!" by Carine06 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

No matter which television network you watch, the word “channel” is central to this Wimbledon, especially on the men’s side. 

Novak Djokovic comes to Wimbledon village having won Roland Garros. This marks the second time 'Nole' has arrived in the London suburb with the Coupe des Mousquetaires in his hands. The first time, in 2016, he lost to Sam Querrey early in the tournament and – we would later learn – was suffering from a shoulder injury. 

More broadly, the immense heavy lifting Djokovic did in 2015 and the first half of 2016 had exhausted him. It took everything for him to win four majors in a row, something Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have never done.  

The Novak Slam was worth it, but it remained that Djokovic was physically taxed at Wimbledon after winning Roland Garros. 

Five years later, Djokovic owns a French Open championship for a second time. He had to come back from two-set deficits in two different Roland Garros matches to lift the trophy. This year, there are only two weeks between Roland Garros and Wimbledon instead of the usual three. 

The situation is very familiar to Djokovic: His biggest opponent at SW19 might be the limits of his own body and mind, more than any specific opponent.

No one would have picked Querrey to beat him in 2016. Credit the big American for pulling through in a fourth-set tiebreaker, but a big part of that match was the reality that Djokovic’s needle was running on empty. 

To this day, it remains a point of debate: Should Djokovic have taken time off after that French Open to pursue rest and recuperation? Had he done so, he might not have lost much of the 2017 season to injury, and he could have gotten in the way of Federer and Nadal, who snapped up each of the four majors that year.  

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This year is not the same as 2016 for Djokovic: He did beat Rafa in a battle which exceeded four hours in Paris, but Federer is not what he once was entering Wimbledon this summer. Andy Murray is not a factor on tour, unlike 2016. Stan Wawrinka is injured and very possibly spent. Juan Martin del Potro isn’t a big part of the tennis landscape. The top threats in 2021 men’s tennis simply aren’t as formidable or menacing as they were in 2016. 

As we look at the Wimbledon men’s draw, Djokovic has a very smooth path to the quarterfinals. The seeds in his section are clay-courters Alejandro Davidovich Fokina and Cristian Garin, plus a struggling Gael Monfils. The highest seed in his quarter, Andrey Rublev, certainly has talent, but he has never gotten past the second round of Wimbledon.

If one player might be able to handle Djokovic in this draw, it is Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is in Djokovic’s half and could face Nole in the semifinals. Yet, Tsitsipas just made his first major final at Roland Garros. The short two-week break between Paris and Wimbledon – which requires a more difficult physical and mental turnaround for Djokovic – might also work against Tsitsipas, who's never had to encounter such a difficult “turn the page” moment in his career. 

On paper, Tsitsipas should reach the semis and face Djokovic. In a world where context must be accounted for, however, it's easy to imagine a mentally weary Tsitsipas getting picked off in the first week, perhaps by net-rushing Canadian veteran Vasek Pospisil, a possible second-round opponent.  

Maybe Matteo Berrettini or Alexander Zverev might be able to serve huge and throw some howitzers at Djokovic in a possible Wimbledon final, but we all know who the big dog is at this tournament, and Nole is likely to feast on a weak field made weaker by the withdrawals of Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem.  

Djokovic is not in a good position to play his very best tennis at this tournament, given the very short turnaround from Paris. He really would have liked a third week of rest before this fortnight in England. Yet, the one player with a realistic shot at beating him is in the same position of having played seven matches in Paris… but without the enormous major-tournament experience Djokovic possesses.  

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Djokovic is the clear favourite to win Wimbledon in 2021 not because he is likely to steamroll the field – coming off a draining Roland Garros campaign, he will likely try to conserve energy whenever he can – but because he is likely to do what he so regularly does: Own the big moments. Channel his focus. 

(There’s that word again: channel.) 

When a lightning-fast grass set goes to a tiebreaker, Djokovic – who won all three tiebreakers he played against Roger Federer in 2019’s historic Wimbledon final – has earned complete trust. He has shown over and over again that he will eliminate mistakes from his game and force his opponent to be flawless. Djokovic isn’t likely to win Wimbledon with a bunch of 2-2-and-3 beatdowns. A more likely path is a series of matches with score-lines close to 6, 4 and 3… but it will be a victory just the same. 

Let’s shift gears and speak not about Djokovic’s status as the clear favorite at SW19, but about the meaning of this tournament for him. 

Start with the word “channel,” because Djokovic is trying to join Federer and Nadal as the winner of the Channel Slam, the Roland Garros-SW19 double. 

Djokovic’s previous five Wimbledon championships all came after failing to win in France: 2011, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2019. He carried enormous pressure to Wimbledon after losing in Paris, and he pulled through like the legendary champion he is. Djokovic doesn’t carry the sting of a French Open loss this time, liberating him to pursue this opportunity to check yet one more box on his remarkable resume. 

Beyond the Channel Slam, Djokovic is pursuing something even greater: The Grand Slam. 

Yes, Nole has the “Novak Double,” owning at least two trophies at each of the four majors – something Nadal and Federer have not done – but now he is going after the crown jewel of tennis. 

Australian icon Rod Laver won all four majors in the same calendar year. The Rocket did so not once, but twice – first in 1962, then in 1969. No man has been able to replicate the Rocket in the past 52 years, but Djokovic – should he win at Wimbledon – would head to New York and the U.S. Open with that glittering, gleaming achievement being within reach. If Djokovic wins the true Grand Slam in 2021, his legacy – his achievements – would grow exponentially. 

That’s a remarkable thing to write and comprehend, because Djokovic’s defeat of Nadal at Roland Garros; his “Novak Double”; his seven majors won after turning 31; and his enormous mental strength shown by powering through pain to win the Australian Open earlier this year are all titanic feats whose magnitude transcends our conception of what is realistically achievable in tennis.  

Djokovic has been expanding boundaries and a sense of what is possible for the last three years… and now he could exponentially increase that sense of the possible at Wimbledon. 

It will be interesting to see if anyone in the field can rise up to meet the Djokovic challenge.

It will be even more interesting to see if Djokovic can clear the Channel Slam hurdle his body wouldn’t allow him to surmount in 2016. 

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Matt Zemek

Matt has written professionally about US College Football since 2000, and has blogged about professional Tennis since 2014. He wants the Australian Open to play Thursday night Women's Semi-Finals, and Friday evening Men's Semi-Finals. Contribute to his Patreon for exclusive content here.

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